Moon’s Artifice: Chapter three

Moon's artificeThis week we have chapter three of the brilliant new book from Tom Lloyd, Moon’s Artifice. If you missed out on our previous extracts, you can still catch up with chapter one and chapter two. We sent out some copies of Moon’s Artifice to some lucky Gollancz Geeks this week so keep any eye on the blog to find out what they make of it.

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Chapter three

With the ascension of mortals to the heavens, some hoped the old Gods would simply fade into history or be destroyed. One must now wonder  whether the God-Emperor and God-Empress instead felt kinship for beings  they  would now share eternity with – or more worryingly, they are not strong enough to defeat those we now call demons.

 From A History by Ayel Sorote

Cotto padded noiselessly along the peak of the roof until he reached the great clay-brick chimney at its centre. He glanced back and nodded to Shir, watching the small man hop the gap between houses and follow Cotto’s path. The breeze was faint on his skin and a layer of clouds hid all but a glimmer of the moonlight. Despite the dark he could see the lines of the city clearly, each roof and tile outlined in pale starry white. On the streets below was a veil of mist, creeping tendrils enveloping the city’s houses like an octopus’s embrace.

‘No sign?’ Shir whispered, crouching beside Cotto to present a smaller outline against the sky.

‘Sign of what?’ Cotto growled back. ‘This is a fool’s errand. What in the seven hells are we likely to find out here?’

He remained standing, one hand hooked on the hanging jaw of a terracotta dragon’s head that protruded from one corner of the massive chimney. His skin was so dark that the whites of Cotto’s eyes seemed to shine by contrast.

‘Our lost brother!’ Shir insisted. ‘Some clue about what happened to him.’

Cotto scowled. ‘Just shut up,’ he muttered, watching Shir’s jaw clamp shut. He felt a pang of contempt at that, at how obedient the man was.

‘Whatever happened to our brother, he’ll be long gone – dead or alive.’

Little more than dogs, they are, he thought to himself. Starsight’s wasted on them; they’ll always  be less than a normal  man. I can hardly  see why the Elders  bother  giving them any of the Blessings  – ’cept it means  fewer true men like me to give the orders.

He  moved  around the chimney to look north from where  they were, toward the palazzos of the Dragons where lesser men ruled; his countrymen, who’d likely not even acknowledge  his presence except to summon their guards. Blade-like towers reached up into the sky, set with long curves  of glass that faintly glowed green or blue. Ancient magic, a jealously guarded secret that illuminated the towers and arches of House Dragon’s district, but mere toys compared to the Blessings Cotto now possessed.

‘Keep moving,’ he muttered, giving the docile Shir a nudge with his boot. ‘We search these streets and return to report.’

They set off at a faster pace, Cotto leading the way along the roof- tops of the district’s lower-caste areas. As they went, the city seemed to close in on them; mist rising up from the Crescent and the sea to fill the streets with a pale, insubstantial blanket even their Starsight could hardly penetrate. They kept to the rooftops, working their way into the corners between buildings and ornate chimneys for their lost brother or a clue to his disappearance.

It was slow going – even  with the Cat’s Paw Blessings the Elders had imbued into their muscles to let them walk silently – but they moved steadily down the lines of houses as the night drew on. They paused at a crossroad, peering down at the dirt-packed  ground below with wary, unblinking eyes.

All was still, the mist undisturbed by man or beast, God or demon. Over the crossroad stood a grand structure, a four-pillared archway canopied by a shallow roof of red tiles. A black dragon statue stood at the very peak of the roof, facing north-east  down the larger of the streets leading away from the crossroad – claws raised and silently roaring a challenge to the cliff-top palazzos of House Eagle.

Cotto was about to leap onto the tiled roof when he heard a faint sound from his companion, a hiss of warning. He froze and heard a click of the tongue come from Shir, then a second. Turning his head slowly, Cotto scanned the street  to the right as the signal had told him to. At first he saw nothing, then he noticed a slight disturbance in the white spread of mist on the street below. He shifted his body slightly and felt the reassuring press of a long-knife in its sheath as he watched the mist drift like a lonely spectre.

Something moved in the street, something smaller than a human. Against the mist it was hard to tell what, but Shir had been right to warn him. There was no sound coming from that direction, no pad of feet or panting that might indicate a stray dog. Cotto eased himself back against the peak of the roof and slowly slipped a hand behind his back, reaching for the small crossbow stowed there. With practised fingers he unshipped the weapon and brought it in front of him, ratcheted the string back and locked it into place without taking his eyes  off the curls of mist below. It wasn’t a powerful weapon, but if that was a fox in the street, it would be enough to kill it and send any demon inhabiting its body fleeing.

He eased a bolt into the trace and paused, weapon ready to aim. Through the mist he saw a small shape, slinking down the side of a building in parallel with them. Not a rat, though demons could use them too, but smaller than a dog for certain. He raised the bow and looked for a shot, drawing in shallow breaths while Shir waited silently behind.

Nothing happened. The fox, or whatever it was, seemed to melt into the night. The layer of mist went undisturbed on the ground; the street frozen like a sheet of ice. After two dozen breaths, Cotto lowered the bow and turned to Shir.

‘Did you see it?’ he whispered.

The small man with greyish skin opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

Cotto frowned and waited a heartbeat longer before his senses screamed in panic. Light burst all around him and a clap of thunder seemed to burst in his head as a fox screamed just behind Shir. The smaller man jerked and juddered, looking pleadingly at Cotto for help, but he was already scrambling out of the way. Cotto fired the crossbow and the bolt cut a trail of white through the night sky as a narrow vulpine head appeared over the crest of the roof. He hurled the spent bow at it, but the fox dodged with unnatural speed and shrieked again.

This time he felt it, the demon touch they had all been warned about. It drove into his ears like a stiletto. Searing pain and a cacophony of sound filled his head, causing Cotto to lurch on the shallow slope of the roof. Somehow he found his hand around his long-knife  and he tore it from the sheath, slashing wildly towards the fox but catching nothing. At the back of his mind, against the mess of noise crashing on his ears, came a second sound, the long deep note of a tolling bell.

Cotto gasped with relief and fought for balance, swinging his knife wildly  as  he  sought  purchase  underfoot. The  clatter  of the  demon touch dimmed, eclipsed by that sonorous peal rising from inside him – another Blessing, this one buried deep within his mind to combat the chattering voices of demons. The fox vanished from sight but Cotto kept moving, desperately seeking an escape route. Shir was still slumped against the roof, his jaw working as though still trying to warn Cotto, but his limbs were frozen in place.

Venom, Cotto realised, he’s gone.

He ran to the edge of the roof, intent on jumping to the grand arch. Before he could leap, something struck him in the side and spun him around. Cotto was thrown from his feet, sliding and scrambling down the shallow roof. Knife abandoned, he flailed for purchase and after a moment of panic found the ornate cornice at the edge of the roof. The muscles of his wrist screamed as his weight pressed down on it, but he managed to fight the pain and hold himself long enough to twist and plant a foot.

He looked up and saw a nightmare staring back. Four angular limbs held it steady at the peak of the roof while a mass of eyes fluttered and twitched madly on its misshapen head. Cotto flapped at his knife sheaths for a moment before tugging a slim blade free. As he hurled it the demon darted to one side and then it was on him. The forelegs slammed into his body and Cotto felt its claws  bite flesh. Only his raised forearm prevented the demon from burying grey fangs into his face and still he cried out as the force of the bite crushed his arm.

Cotto struck back with a closed fist, the steel knuckles of his gloves crashing into the side of the demon’s head, but it was like punching stone. The demon jerked sideways and hurled him back up towards the peak of the roof, pouncing after him like a striking spider and biting down again. This time it tore through the leather spaulder and down into his shoulder. Cotto had drawn a knife by then and hacked at one of the limbs pinning him. The blade scraped down the limb, tearing through velvet-black skin before catching and digging into bone or chitin.

The demon ignored the injury and used a free limb to drive Cotto onto his blade-arm,  pinning the weapon while it tore at his armour. This time it found a vulnerable point under his arm and ripped at the flesh. Cotto howled, then screamed as the demon slammed a clawed limb into the wound and snapped the ribs below. Pain flooded his body. Cotto felt the strength drain from his limbs as the demon hooked multi-jointed limbs around his shoulders and pinned his arms back, turning him face-up  to stare at the uncaring clouds above.

The fox appeared again, a malevolent arrowhead against the darkened sky. Its pale pelt faded to black around narrow eyes in which Cotto could see jerky, twisting bluish light. The air around it flickered and shuddered, lambent and ghostly. Pinpricks of white light burst before his eyes, jagged shapes that hinted at a huge hunched wolf looming over him. The fox advanced  and screamed again, needle-sharp teeth showing as the sound ripped into Cotto’s mind and he howled with it. The phantom wolf lunged at the same time and he felt its teeth scrape down his belly, his muscles shrieking as the crackling maw bit down. Again the peal of the bell rose up unbidden from the depths of his memory, but this time the fox was undeterred.

A second cry burst Cotto’s eardrums. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the fox as it came close enough to sink those slender teeth into his face.  Pale light thrashed like a storm all around it as the white wolf continued its assault, tearing underneath his leather armour. He tried to free his arms, but the misshaped demon was far stronger, its grip unbreakable. Inhuman voices screamed through his head and the tolling bell became increasingly distant. The bursts of light in its eyes intensified and Cotto felt a searing pain in his own as he tried to hide from the light, but he couldn’t move. The fox’s eyes blazed bright and— Without warning the demon was thrown to one side, almost spun around by the force of a crossbow bolt tearing into its gut. It screeched and turned to flee, the wolf collapsing into eddies that folded back into the fox. Over the far side of the roof appeared a black, expressionless face. For a moment Cotto felt a fresh pang of fear, seeing only unnatural, inhuman lines of brow and jaw. Then he realised it was a mask as the figure slammed a slim axe into the fox’s neck. There was great spurt of blood and the fox’s head tumbled while the wolf-spirit seemed to explode and evaporate into nothingness.

The monster holding Cotto released its grip and scrambled to attack. Before it could, another  black-masked  goshe  appeared  and hooked one of its legs, dragging the demon off-balance  before chopping into its shoulder joint with a second axe. The demon threw itself around, driving up with lightning speed to claw at its attacker,  but somehow the goshe was faster. It deflected the limb and whirled around with the grace of a dancer – slashing at the demon’s bulbous body as it went, before hooking another limb and dragging it close once more.

The demon lurched unsteadily towards it, but this time the goshe drove in to meet it and smashed a lightning-wreathed  fist into the snagged limb like a hammer. A cracking sound cut through the night and the demon yowled, but then the first goshe was on it and hacking down at its head. Both struck in quick succession and the creature spasmed and fell limp.

Cotto managed a croak, a gasp for air as everything fell still around him. The second goshe looked down and slid up its mask, revealing a woman’s face. In the white light of his Starsight, Cotto saw pale skin and light eyes, a wisp of hair creeping down her cheek towards a thin scar that seemed strangely bright in the augmented light.

‘Kodeh,’ she said briskly to her comrade, pointing at the larger of the demons with her axe. ‘Take that one and head back before anything comes to investigate.’

‘And the fox?’  Kodeh asked,  accent  and black  skin marking him as a fellow Dragon – a native of this district in some fashion, just as Cotto was.

‘Leave it, it’s just a vessel. The demon-spirit’s gone, but the other is one of their soldiers. The Elders will want to study it.’

‘As you command.’ The big man spared a glance  down at Cotto.

‘What about him?’

She looked down and Cotto drunkenly tried to pull himself upright with his good arm. ‘They have his scent now.’

‘Syn … Synter,’ Cotto gasped. ‘I can walk.’

Her face was blank. ‘I doubt that,’ she said. ‘Kodeh, I’ll meet you at the safehouse. First I need to warn Father Jehq.’

‘Of what?’

The woman’s face tightened with anger. ‘This was an ambush; they knew we’d be looking for signs of Irato. That fox was digging into Cotto’s mind, we’ve no idea how much they know. We need to cover our tracks and protect the artefact.’

‘What … about me?’ Cotto panted, fear taking him as Kodeh tossed the dead monstrosity over his shoulder and trotted back across the rooftops.

Synter ignored him and went to see to Shir. She crouched down over the man for a few moments then drew a knife from her belt and cut his throat, tossing the body with ease down the sloped roof until it fell to the ground.

‘Synter!’ Cotto pleaded as she stood over him. ‘Don’t!’

There was no pity in her pale eyes as she returned to him, nor remorse. Focused on the task at hand, the female goshe didn’t even seem to hear him.

‘Let’s hope they  got nothing from you,’ she muttered  to herself, ‘we’re too close now.’

She reached  into a  pocket  and withdrew  a  small bag,  hefting it in her hand as she gave  Cotto an appraising look. ‘Time to clear up behind us. Wouldn’t want to leave  anything for the Astaren  to find now, would we?’

The blackened blade flashed once more in his star-lit eyes and then all was dark.